Why saying “I don’t know” is liberating, by Georgia Lewis

In August, I blogged about learning from your mistakes - in particular, the power of admitting to a mistake, owning it, learning from it and moving on. This time, I am writing about the importance of saying, “I don’t know”, a close relation to taking responsibility when we mess up. Indeed, admitting you don’t know something can prevent a mistake or a poor decision being made in the first place.

Being described as a know-it-all isn’t necessarily a compliment. In her 1998 hit, That Don’t Impress Me Much, Shania Twain sang about a man who was clearly making statements he couldn’t back up: “You think you’re a genius/You drive me up the wall/You’re a regular, original know-it-all".

Ms Twain was certainly unimpressed, but plenty of us are not shy about sounding off on subjects we know precious little about. A quick scroll through Twitter reveals thousands of people firing off opinions on current events with the confidence of epidemiologists, military strategists or international trade lawyers. And we’ve all read ill-informed takes on complex subjects from newspaper columnists, heard them on radio phone-ins, or watched politicians caught like rabbits in headlights during TV interviews where it is obvious that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Imagine how refreshing it would be if more of us were empowered simply to say, “I don’t know.”

None of us can be experts in every single subject, plenty of us know a little about a lot of different things, and sometimes we just don’t have the knowledge to offer an informed opinion or make an educated decision. And that’s OK, as long as we’re honest and constructive.

A politician could change the way they deal with tough issues by responding to a curly question with: “I don’t know. I am sorry about that as it is something I need to know more about. I will look into this as a matter of urgency and let you know what I find out, as soon as I speak with the experts in this field. Everyone deserves an informed answer to that important question.” But it’s not just politicians who would garner more respect if they were empowered to say “I don’t know.”

In the workplace, the “fake it till you make it” attitude will only take you so far. Of course, a little confidence can go a long way, especially in a challenging new job. But it is far more professional and productive in the long run if you admit you don’t know something and express a willingness to learn more. This might mean something as simple as talking to a more experienced colleague or asking about extra training.

If someone junior to you asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, it is better to admit you don’t know but you will find out. It doesn’t hurt to show a little humility – colleagues, junior and senior, will respect your honesty and appreciate the effort you take to find the answer. And it creates a culture where everyone feels more comfortable with admitting they don’t know something because they will be empowered to learn rather than feel belittled for their honesty.

Pretending to know something when you’re not 100% sure is exhausting at best, and at worse can ruin your credibility. It is a heavy burden to carry in a professional environment. Ultimately, it raises stress levels, especially if you are worried that the gap in your knowledge will catch up with you.

It is far more liberating to admit that there’s something you don’t know, with the proviso that you are determined to learn more and become a more useful team member as a result, whether it’s your first job or you’re the boss.